Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is scheduled to return to his homeland this week after seven years in exile in South Africa. He was overthrown - for the second time--in a 2004 coup organized by the United States and its allies. Washington has gone to great lengths to prevent his return over the last seven years, and this week the State Department once again warned that Aristide should not return until "after the [March 20] electoral process is concluded."
The State Department is pretending that Aristide can simply come home after the election, and that he must have some sinister political motive for returning before the vote. But this is completely dishonest. It is obvious that the next elected president will likely defer to the U.S. and keep Aristide out. Furthermore, there is electoral pressure right now to allow Aristide back in the country. The Miami Herald reports that both of the contenders in the Sunday election have now said they welcome Aristide's return, after previously opposing it. This about-face is obviously an attempt to court Fanmi Lavalas (Aristide's party) voters. But we Americans know what happens to candidates' political stances after the election is over.
Clearly Aristide is taking advantage of his first, and possibly only, opportunity to return home. Meanwhile, the Miami Herald reports that phone calls from President Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon failed to convince South African president Jacob Zuma to keep Aristide from leaving South Africa.
How disgraceful that President Obama, a former law professor himself, would conspire to violate international law by attempting to deprive President Aristide of his human rights. And that the Secretary General of the United Nations would bend to Obama's will and collaborate with him. As noted in a letter to the State Department by prominent lawyers and law professors, this is a violation of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty that the United States has ratified. It states that "[n]o one shall be arbi-trar¬ily deprived of the right to enter his own country."
Washington and its allies would do better to take advantage of this opportunity to change course in Haiti, and accept the concept of self-determination for the Haitian people. They have denied this for decades, and especially since Aristide first was elected president in 1990. Within seven months, he was overthrown by the military and others who were later found to be paid by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The United States has denied self-government to Haiti ever since. After Aristide was democratically elected for the second time in 2000, with more than 90 percent of the vote, the United States "sought . . . to block bilateral and multilateral aid to Haiti, having an objection to the policies and views of the administration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. . . Choking off assistance for development and for the provision of basic services also choked off oxygen to the government, which was the intention all along: to dislodge the Aristide administration." That was Paul Farmer of Harvard's Medical School, Bill Clinton's Deputy Special Envoy from the UN to Haiti, testifying to the U.S. Congress last summer.
While many complain about the non-functional Haitian state as the country struggles to rebuild, they forget how large a role the "international community" has had in destroying the Haitian government even before the earthquake demolished most of what was left of it.
The reconstruction of Haiti will need a legitimate, functioning state. This will require a process of consensus-building among the country's most important political constituencies. This process will therefore have to include Aristide and his political party, Fanmi Lavalas, which remains the most popular party in the country.
Washington and its allies - including Brazil, which heads up the UN occupation force - will have to accept this reality. Haiti cannot be ruled through violence, as it has been for most of the past century. Aristide, as the country's first legitimate president, was able to eliminate 98 percent of Haiti's political violence - mostly by abolishing Haiti's murderous army. By contrast, after each coup (1991 and 2004) that overthrew his government, thousands of Haitians were murdered. That is the choice going forward: a legitimate government or a violent government.
So far, the international community does not appear to be much concerned about establishing a legitimate government. Fanmi Lavalas was arbitrarily excluded from the first round (Nov. 28) of Haiti's presidential election, in which a record three-quarters of the electorate did not vote. Then Washington and its allies forced the government to change the results of the first round of the election, eliminating the government candidate and leaving only two right-wing candidates in the race.
Haiti today is an occupied country, with almost no legitimate authority. United Nations troops police the country, and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide most basic services, which are severely inadequate. More than a year after the earthquake, there has been little progress in removing rubble, or providing adequate shelter or sanitation for more than one million people displaced. And Haiti faces another rainy season beginning next month. Humanitarian needs are dire.
The situation in Haiti is potentially explosive, and it is not because, as the U.S. State Department argues, that Aristide might return before the election. Rather it is because they have denied Haitians their right to self-government, and continue to do so. Aristide has been Haiti's only national political leader for the past two decades, and his party the country's largest political party. It is long past time that the international community recognizes that reality, rather than trying to exclude them from the political process through intimidation and violence.
This was published in The Guardian Unlimited, March 17, 2011
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